Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography | Book Review


“Luther was a problem,” writes Herman Selderhuis in Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography. “Certainly for the pope and the emperor, but often he was also a problem for his fellow reformers.”

However, Luther was problematic to those people in different ways — good and bad — which complicates his legacy.

On October 31, 2017, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, Luther published his 95 Theses challenging “the power and efficacy of indulgences.” Today, November 10, is Luther’s birthday. (He was born in 1483.) These dates give us a suitable occasion to assess Luther’s legacy and learn what lessons we can from it.

Let us begin with the positive. No less an authority than Calvin said that Luther “gave the Gospel back to us.” By this, he meant the doctrine of justification by faith. Christ alone (solus Christus) saves sinners by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).

“This article of faith cannot be compromised,” wrote Luther about justification by faith in The Smalkald Articles of 1537. “Nothing can be taken away from it, even if the earth or heaven or whatever should fall.” Why? Because “if this article remains standing, the church remains standing, but if this article falls, the church also falls.”

Luther came to believe this gospel based on his close reading of Paul, especially the apostle’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians. Romans 1:17 says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The just will live by faith.’”

And that brings us to a second positive aspect of Luther’s legacy: the authority of Scripture. Luther was a professor of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg, able to read Scripture in its original languages, Hebrew and Greek. It was his close reading of Scripture that led him to begin to question the penitential practices of the late medieval Catholic church.

These questions first became public in the 95 Theses. When Catholic authorities pushed back on Luther’s questions, they drove him deeper into Scripture. The more he read, the more he questioned, until he concluded that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christian faith and practice — not papal authority, church tradition or even the decisions of church councils.

When called upon to recant his beliefs at the 1521 Diet of Worms, standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, German princes, church leaders and a representative of the pope himself, Luther refused:

If, then, I am not convinced by testimonies of Scripture or by clear rational arguments — for I do not believe in the pope or in the councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted each other — I am bound by the Bible texts that I have quoted. And as long as my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot nor do I want to retract anything when things become doubtful. Salvation will be threatened if you go against your conscience. May God help me. Amen.

The famous words, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” were evidently added at a later time, but they capture the spirit of Luther’s refusal.

Later theologians called sola fide the material principle of the Reformation and sola Scriptura its formal principle. The principles answer humanity’s two most basic questions: How can I be saved? And how do I know? Luther’s rediscovery of them is the core of his positive legacy, in my opinion. Certainly they created problems for both the pope and the emperor, but they were necessary problems, essential reforms to a corrupt medieval church, and good news in every age.

As Selderhuis noted, however, Luther created other problems for his fellow reformers that can be neither overlooked nor excused. No doubt a man who takes a stand against the religious and political powers of his day must have a spine of steel. Unfortunately, Luther could be stiff-necked and abusive toward his fellow reformers on issues where compromise and gentle language were necessary.

Luther’s closest colleague, Philip Melanchthon, bore the brunt of that abuse. Luther’s temper was so well-known that Melanchthon usually served as a buffer between him and other Protestant reformers. Two years after Luther’s death, Melanchthon offered this blunt assessment: “I had to bear an almost degrading bondage because Luther was led by his militant temperament and exhibited a cocky self-righteousness, rather than that he would pay attention to his deferential position and the common good.”

But Luther’s cantankerousness toward allies pales in comparison to the worst aspects of his legacy: his violent rhetoric. Two examples should suffice. In 1524–25, German peasants rose in revolt against the aristocracy. Many had been inspired by Luther’s words and personal example, and Luther himself was initially sympathetic to their complaints.

But by 1525, Luther felt the peasants had gone too far, and encouraged authorities to deal harshly with them:

whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog, so, if you do not fight the rebels, they will fight you, and the whole country with you.

Then there’s what Luther said about Jews. Early in his career, Luther had hoped Jews would convert to Christianity once they heard the proclamation of the true gospel. Later in life, though, his attitude took a much darker turn. In Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1542), he advocated authorities take specific measures against Jews. Let me quote Selderhuis at length.

First of all, synagogues should be burned because that is where the blasphemy takes place. For the same reason, Jews’ homes should be destroyed. Their prayer books and their Talmuds should be confiscated. Since their money had been stolen from Christians, Luther thought [a false but common belief in the middle ages], their money and jewelry should be seized. That money must be used for the support of Jews who had become Christians. Jews who did not qualify would have to earn their money by means of forced labor.

These are hard words for anyone to read after the Holocaust, especially when we know that Nazis used Luther’s remarks in their anti-Semitic propaganda. They certainly tarnish the Protestant celebration of Luther’s positive legacy.

So, what do we make of Luther today? After narrating Luther’s life honestly, warts and all, Selderhuis concludes: “Luther needed the grace that he himself had proclaimed. Throughout his life he remained a good example of his view that a Christian remains a sinner all his life and remains justified at the same time.”

Simul iustus et peccator is how Luther expressed that view in Latin.

On Luther’s birthday and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, simul iustus et peccator summarizes Luther’s legacy, both the good and the bad. Herman Selderhuis should be thanked for writing a biography that so skillfully narrates the life of Martin Luther and helps us interpret its complicated meaning.

 

Book Reviewed
Herman Selderhuis, Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life | Book Review


For nearly 70 years, English-language readers have been well served by Roland H. Bainton’s classic biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand. A slew of new biographies has come off the presses in time for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but I still consider Bainton’s the best choice for the general reader, especially if you’re only going to read one book this year about him or the Protestant Reformation.

However, if you’re going to read more than one book, I think you should consider Volker Leppin’s Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life, translated by Rhys Bezzant. Leppin is professor of church history at the University of Tübingen in Germany, a well-regarded scholar of the late medieval period, and author of a scholarly, German-language biography of Luther, Martin Luther: Gestalten Des Mittelalters Und Der Renaissance (2010), which this much shorter book epitomizes.

Leppin’s biography is a model of economy, clarity, and historical thinking. In his Foreword, Timothy J. Wengert highlights what makes this biography distinctive: “Leppin’s chief contribution to our understanding of Luther stems from his careful distinguishing of Luther’s later accounts of early events in his life from earlier accounts, especially given the influence of the later accounts in relating Luther’s life story.” Wengert also writes that Leppin “demythologizes the standard view of Luther.”

Whether or not you agree with all of Leppin’s demythologizations—and there are ongoing scholarly debates about some of them—it is always helpful, in the pursuit of historical knowledge, to know where the controversies lie.

 

Book Reviewed
Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life, trans. Rhys Bezzant (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Reformation Reading Recommendations


The Protestant Reformation was a bookish renewal movement, so it’s not surprising that publishers are celebrating its 500th anniversary with a slew of new books about Martin Luther and his spiritual progeny. No one has time to read them all — not even this magazine editor — but I nevertheless have some recommendations.

For the life of Luther, I recommend Roland H. Bainton’s 1950 classic, Here I Stand. Bainton was a church historian at Yale Divinity School, but he wore his learning lightly in this biography. Here I Stand hits the highlights of Luther’s life; notes the social, political and religious contexts of his work; summarizes the development of his theology; quotes him judiciously; and keeps the narrative moving so that readers don’t get bored.

In recommending Bainton, I don’t mean to slight any of the other biographies that have been published this year. The number of authors who have written competently about Luther include — in alphabetical order — Craig Harline, Volker Leppin, Peter Marshall, Eric Metaxas, Richard Rex, Lyndal Roper, Heinz Schilling, Herman Selderhuis and others. I assume that most readers will read only one biography if they read any, and I think Bainton best serves the interests of the general reader. If you like Bainton, feel free to pick up one of the others.

Two books remind us Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora was a life-changing event, for him personally and for the Protestant Reformation more broadly. Ruth A. Tucker’s Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation ably reconstructs von Bora’s life from sparse sources, painting the picture of a fascinating and in many ways essential figure of the Reformation. Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk reminds us how scandalous their marriage was in the context of their times, how important it was to Luther and how it shaped Protestant views of marriage through his writings.

For elementary-age children, I recommend Reformation ABCs: The People, Places, and Things of the Reformation — from A to Z by Stephen J. Nicholls and Ned Bustard. For students, Dacia Palmerino and Andrea Ciponte’s Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic Biography — a graphic novel — is definitely worth a look.

For the writings of Luther, there are several inexpensive one-volume collections. John Dillenberger’s 1962 Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings is still the best. It includes The Ninety-Five Theses as well as Luther’s three seminal treatises from 1520: An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian.

For the history of the Protestant Reformation more generally, check out Brad S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World. Gregory briskly traces the early history of the major branches of the Reformation — Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed and Anglican — and argues that Luther’s reforms led unwittingly to the secularism of the modern world. It’s an interesting study in the unintended consequences of ideas. Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World traces the history of the Reformation from Luther to Pentecostals. Rodney Stark — a sociologist of religion, not a historian — shows why his colleagues call him (jokingly, I assume) the “skunk at the picnic” in his book, Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes. One of the myths he challenges is “Protestant secularization,” which makes this book a good counterpoint to Gregory’s.

Martin Luther | Book Review


On the occasion of the Protestant Reformation’s five hundredth anniversary, books about Martin Luther have been pouring off the presses. Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther will probably sell the most copies, perhaps more than all the other combined. It debuted at number seven on the October 22, 2017 New York Times’s bestseller list. It is still a bestseller on Amazon.com.

I had high hopes for this biography. Luther lived a big life, one of world-historical importance. His actions laid the foundations of the modern world, a result that he, steeped in medieval assumptions about Christendom, would most likely have abhorred. (On that topic, see Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks.) The public needs a standard, readable account of such a life in every generation, and I had hoped that Metaxas’ biography would be the worthy successor to Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand.

Metaxas on Luther is good, but not great. Martin Luther covers the same ground as Here I Stand—the latter is the first reference in Metaxas’ bibliography—but Bainton tells the story with more economy and verve. Metaxas is a beautiful writer, but compared to Bainton, I felt he got lost too often in the narrative weeds. For example, while Metaxas writes about Luther’s insight into the meaning of the phrase, the righteousness of God, as well as about his articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith, neither word—righteousness, justification—has an entry in the index. So, a researcher looking for Metaxas’ treatment of Luther’s theology—the doctrine on which the church stands or falls!—won’t know where to find it in the book.

On occasion, Luther’s word choice and his drawing of extended metaphors is too precocious. He uses the Latin word Aetatitis in chapter headings, for example, to mark the years of Luther’s life. I’m still stuck on his use of the word ensorcelling, when the more well-known enchanting or fascinating would’ve worked just as well. And why he insists on using Kathie instead of Katie as the diminutive for Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, is beyond me. It’s like Metaxas feels he needs to break with convention just for the heck of it.

Martin Luther is probably too long and involved for the general reader, but not researched thoroughly enough for the academic reader. It doesn’t advance any new insight about Luther, dependent on other studies in that regard. Like I said, good, but not great. If you’re going to read just one book about Luther this year, I’d stick with Here I Stand.

 

Book Reviewed:

Eric Metaxas Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Rebel in the Ranks | Book Review


October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a document calling for academic debate on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Saxony. The posting of this document — titled, Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or more popularly Ninety-five Theses — inaugurated the process whereby Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the end results of which are still felt today.

The consequences of the Protestant Reformation are the subject of Brad S. Gregory’s new book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Luther and other Protestants intended to reform the Church. That was their stated aim. However, it is not that consequence, but three other unintended consequences that capture Gregory’s attention.

The first was “the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism.” Protestants agree that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christians in matters of faith and practice. They came to this view as their debates with Roman Catholic theologians about indulgences and other matters raised the question of what authority everyone must acknowledge as the final authority in such matters.

The problem was that acknowledging Scripture’s final authority did not result in a unified interpretation of Scripture. Instead, Protestants argued amongst themselves: Lutheran versus Zwinglian versus Reformed versus Anabaptist. To this day, while there is one Roman Catholic Church (at least nominally), there is no one Protestant Church — only Protestant churches, who still disagree among themselves, often to the point of breaking communion with one another.

Secondly, Gregory argues, “Just as the reformers never intended to pave the way for any and all interpretations of God’s Word, so they never intended to facilitate endless doctrinal controversy or recurrent violence, let alone to divide Christendom itself.” Again, their stated aim was to reform the Church, not to break it. And yet, it broke nonetheless.

Part of the reason for this was that in the 16th and 17th centuries, religion was always “more-than-religion,” as Gregory puts it. He explains what he means by way of a contrast: “Religion today is a distinct area of life — separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life.” Because of this, controversies in religion became controversies in society, culture, politics and economics. The Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century were the most violent expressions of these conflicts, but not the only ones.

These two unintended consequences, in combination, defined the major political problem modernity had to solve. If people cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible, and if their disagreements lead to social conflict and war, what must be done to achieve peace? The answer that began to emerge in the 17th century can be captured in a single word: secularization.

Gregory defines a secular society as “one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.” If religion in medieval society was more-than-religion, then religion in modern society had to become less-than-life. It had to become a component, not the whole. This diminishment of the scope of religion was accompanied by an increase in the scope of personal freedom. Medieval Christendom may have been dominated by a Christian worldview, but in modern society, individuals “can believe whatever they want to believe about morality or purpose and live their lives accordingly.” In short, as Gregory notes, “The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.”

There are benefits to this secularization, of course. Religious freedom — more broadly, freedom of conscience — is the most obvious one. But there are downsides as well. Secularization was meant to bring peace among warring Christian nations, but secular societies have not proven themselves to be necessarily peaceful ones, as the fate of 20th-century Communist nations so tragically attests.

Indeed, secular societies are characterized by what Gregory calls “hyperpluralism.” If it was hard to unite societies divided between Protestants and Catholics (or among Protestants), how easy will it be to unite a society where 51 flavors of religion, non-religion and irreligion are on offer?

“So here we are,” Gregory concludes, “so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago.”

 

Book Reviewed
Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Here I Stand | Book Review


The Protestant Reformation marks its five-hundredth anniversary this coming October 31st. On that date in 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The theses called into question the selling of indulgences, which the pope granted to reduce time in Purgatory for either the buyer or the buyer’s intended beneficiaries.

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” preached Johannes Tetzel of these indulgences, “the soul from purgatory springs.” Sales of indulgences were quite lucrative, helping Albert of Brandenburg buy the archbishopric of Mainz and Leo X build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The text of the Ninety-five Theses was largely biblical and theological, but the subtext was a German critique of Italian grandiosity.

Luther intended his theses to instigate a “disputation…on the power and efficacy of indulgences,” as the incipit to the printed placard put it. He didn’t intend to divide the Church or rend the unity of medieval Europe. Like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to reform Catholicism and restore the simplicity of the gospel. Dissemination of his theses set in motion a process which did that, though in ways he could not foresee that All Hallows’ Eve.  After Luther, Christianity and Christendom would never be the same. We moderns live in his world-historical shadow.

Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton narrates the events of Luther’s life, focusing on the years between the posting of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517 and the publication of The Augsburg Confession in 1530. Though Luther was born in 1487 and died in 1546, 1517–1530 is the crucial period. Luther’s theology matured: he defined the doctrine of justification by faith, translated the New Testament, revised the liturgy, and wrote catechisms for adults and children alike. It was also during this period that Luther broke decisively with Rome; the Evangelicals divided into Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist camps; and Christian princes intervened in political disputes, protecting the nascent Lutheran movement. In these years, religious radicals took over Müntzer, German peasants revolted and Luther’s theology of both church and state advocated a middle way between extremes.

Bainton’s prose is clear and his narrative forward-moving. Here I Stand is a work of genuine scholarship—with a chronology, bibliography, and index—but it is written for a broad audience. If you’re interested in Luther’s life, or the history of the Reformation, I encourage you to read this biography first.

Here I Stand was first published in 1950, but I read the 2009 reprint in the Hendrickson Classic Biography series. It is available as a reprint from other publishers too.

 

Book Reviewed:
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009; orig. 1950).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

In Honor of Reformation Day, Here are Martin Luther’s 95 Theses


On this day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed the following 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

_______________

Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther
on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences
by Dr. Martin Luther (1517)
 Published in:
Works of Martin Luther:
Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds.
(Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 29-38

_______________

Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.

In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
  2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
  3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.
  4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
  5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.
  6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.
  7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.
  8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
  9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
  10.  Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.
  11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.
  12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
  13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.
  14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.
  15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
  16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.
  17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.
  18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.
  19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.
  20. Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself.
  21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;
  22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.
  23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.
  24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.
  25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.
  26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.
  27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
  28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
  29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.
  30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.
  31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.
  32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.
  33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;
  34. For these “graces of pardon” concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.
  35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.
  36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
  37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.
  38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.
  39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.
  40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].
  41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.
  42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.
  43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
  44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.
  45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
  46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.
  47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.
  48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.
  49. Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.
  50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
  51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.
  52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.
  53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.
  54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.
  55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
  56. The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope. grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.
  57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.
  58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.
  59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church’s poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
  60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ’s merit, are that treasure;
  61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.
  62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
  63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
  64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
  65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.
  66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.
  67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.
  68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.
  69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.
  70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.
  71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!
  72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!
  73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.
  74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.
  75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God — this is madness.
  76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.
  77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.
  78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii.
  79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
  80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render.
  81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.
  82. To wit: — “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.”
  83. Again: — “Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”
  84. Again: — “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”
  85. Again: — “Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?”
  86. Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”
  87. Again: — “What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?”
  88. Again: — “What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?”
  89. “Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?”
  90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.
  91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.
  92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!
  93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
  94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;
  95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

Review of ‘Getting the Reformation Wrong’ by James R. Payton Jr.


Getting-the-Reformation-Wrong James R. Payton Jr., Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2010). Paperback / Kindle

Every now and then, I hear friends describe—denounce, really—some book as a work of “revisionist history.” What they mean by that appellation is that the book contains a false account of the past. And while they may or may not be correct in their evaluation, what strikes me is their misunderstanding of the historical task. By nature, all historical writing is revisionist. That is, the task of historians is to revise our present understanding of the past through better methodologies and more accurate information. They don’t always succeed in doing so, but they (should) always try. Absent their efforts, we run the risk of misremembering the past and acting in the present on the basis of misleading, if not false, history.

In Getting the Reformation Wrong, James R. Payton Jr. engages in a revisionist history of the 16th-century Reformation in order to correct popular misunderstandings of that seminal movement, especially among North American evangelicals. Successive chapters deal with the following misunderstandings:

  • The Reformation did not originate de novo in the 16th century (chapter 1). Rather, the events of the 16th century built on the desire felt throughout Western Christendom in the preceding two centuries for reformatio in capite et membris—Latin for head-to-toe reformation. The reformers may have capitalized on this long-felt desire, but they did not create it.
  • The Renaissance and Reformation were not competing movements (chapter 2). Instead, they were complementary movements. Indeed, with the notable exception of Luther, most of the first generation of Protestant reformers were “humanists,” that is, advocates of a liberal arts education as opposed to a medieval scholastic education.
  • The Reformation did not emerge rapidly or smoothly (chapter 3). Rather, in the early years, different people were attracted to Luther for different reasons, not all of them having to do with justification by faith. For example, the Peasant Revolt drew inspiration from themes in Luther’s writings, even though Luther himself specifically—and forcefully—condemned the revolt.
  • The Reformers did not agree with one another (chapter 4). Indeed, their disputes were sometimes rancorous and led to longstanding rifts within the movement.
  • The Reformers did not dispute the importance of good works in the life of the Christian (chapter 5). They agreed that we are justified by faith alone (sola fide), but they also agreed that the faith by which we are justified is not alone. It produces good works.
  • Similarly, the Reformers did not think that the Christian life could dispense with church tradition (chapter 6). They believed in Scripture alone (sola fide) as the final, unquestioned authority in the life of the church. But they also believed that tradition (e.g., creeds, councils, confessions, etc.) could play a subordinate role.
  • Regarding the so-called “radical reformation,” Payton shows that 16th-century Anabaptists were not predecessors of Baptists, incorporated a broader range of groups than modern-day Anabaptists, and originated in multiple places, not just in Switzerland (chapter 7).
  • The Counter Reformation was not merely a response to the Protestant Reformation (chapter 8). Rather, based on a centuries-old desire for head-to-toe reformation, various Catholic reform movements spread up before, along with, and outside of the Protestant Reformation.
  • Late-16th– and early-17th-century Protestant scholasticism was not necessarily a natural outgrowth of the earlier Reformation (chapter 9). Rather, it represented a significant shift in methodology and emphasis.
  • The Reformation was not an unalloyed success, at least not according to the Reformers’ own stated goals (chapter 10).
  • Similarly, if we pay attention to the teaching of the Reformers, then we cannot see the Reformation as a theological norm or “golden age” (chapter 11).

This bullet-pointed summary of Getting the Reformation Wrong doesn’t do justice to Payton’s nuanced argumentation, though it alerts you to the topics he addresses. The book is gracefully written, fair-minded, and insightful on a range of topics. I was especially impressed by the chapters on the events preceding the Reformation (chapter 1) and on the Catholic movements for reformation (chapter 8). The desire for reformatio in capite et membris was both widespread and ecumenical.

Payton’s final chapter asks whether the Reformation was a triumph or a tragedy, and concludes that it was both. Triumph: “it rediscovered and boldly proclaimed the apostolic message, the Christian gospel.” Tragedy: “divisions among the Protestant Reformers have mushroomed among their descendants in contravention of the explicit words of Jesus Christ himself” (i.e., in John 17:20–21). “It is at least a horrendous anomaly,” Payton writes, “that the sixteenth-century Reformation got rid of the clutter that obscured the foundation of the Christian faith, only to have Protestants cover that foundation again with the clutter of our manifold divisions.”

To which this Protestant can only say: “Lord, have mercy!” And also, thank God for revisionist historians who bring such problems to light!

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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